Beyond the Atmosphere: Early Years of Space Science

[373] As the peak of labor on Apollo passed, following the middle of the decade, and as NASA completed more and more of the projects undertaken in the first years of the agency, the question of NASA's future course assumed a growing importance in the minds of NASA managers. For a decade the quest for world leadership in space had helped to sustain NASA's program. But success brought a particular erosion of that support. For, when it became clear that the United States was at the very least fully competitive with the USSR, and more likely was well ahead of them in space research and engineering, the initial motivation dwindled. There began a reassessment of NASA's mission, particularly by the executive side of government. Coming at a time of national reassessment of priorities, of concern about civil rights and student unrest, of disenchantment with the Vietnam War, and a shaky economic situation, the reassessment was bound to affect the agency.
To many who had a say about NASA's budget-especially in the Nixon administration, but actually well before then-the precise nature and importance of NASA's mission were not at all clear. The strongest challenges to NASA's role came in space applications, where by law other agencies had the prime responsibilities. Meteorological and oceanographic applications now came under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which had absorbed the former Weather Bureau and much of the Navy's oceanographic activities along with a number of other responsibilities.1 In communications other agencies called the shots: for national policy, the Office of Telecommunications in the White House; for commercial uses, the Federal Communications Commission, the Communications Satellite Corporation, and private industry; for regulation, the Federal Communications Commission; for applications to education and health, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare; and for use in commercial shipping, the Maritime Commission.2 The primary mission in agriculture and forestry-which satellite observations promised to aid substantially-belonged to the Department of Agriculture. Any use of satellites for the exploration and survey of mineral resources fell squarely [374] into the legally assigned mission of the U.S. Geological Survey of the Department of the Interior. As a consequence any payoff from space investments that NASA might seek to realize in space applications would have to be sold in the form of a service to another agency within whose purview the specific application fell.
Even aeronautics-the primary activity of the former National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which formed the nucleus for NASA, and an activity that remained a strong component of the NASA program-belonged primarily to others; namely, the Department of Defense, the Federal Aviation Administration, and industry.
Only three areas could NASA claim as its own: the development of space techniques and hardware; space exploration; and space science. But in the difficult climate existing 10-15 years after the start of the space program, even these had a hard row to hoe. For example, to assign all development of space techniques and hardware to NASA (excepting, of course, the substantial amount the military did) ran counter to the widely held view that a user should develop his own hardware to meet a specifically perceived need. There are many virtues to this point of view. Certainly a prospective user would be motivated to tailor his research and development to the actual need and to be properly attentive to keeping costs down. Also, the actual user could be assumed to know best exactly what was required for his application. But the large-scale, highly specialized, very expensive test and launching equipment and the large teams that were required for space development and operations argued for assigning the research, development, and operations to a single agency. For each user to duplicate the personnel and facilities would be extremely wasteful. There were accordingly strong pressures on NASA to assume a largely service role in support of the many users interested in applying space methods to their missions. The forces in this direction outweighed the natural desires of the different agencies to provide their own services, and in the balance between the two conflicting pressures NASA maintained an uncertain hold on a role in the field of space applications.
In a period of retrenchment NASA found that role particularly difficult. NASA was expected to perform the necessary advanced research for prospective applications. But in the late 1960s it was difficult to get administration approval for such advanced research in spite of vigorous urging from many congressional quarters for NASA to do more applications work. Before starting any new applications projects, the Office of Management and Budget wanted from potential users not merely pious words in support, but assurances that there were genuine plans to use the new methods, not merely as a supplement to old methods but actually as a more efficient replacement for some of them. Potential users might underwrite specific and clearly realizable applications, but were usually very reluctant to support the advanced engineering and development needed to establish the [375] feasibility of potential applications. Under the circumstances the administration was even less ready to approve the advanced work. This was particularly true when the development, as with earth-resources surveys from space, was likely to introduce large new expenditures into the national budget.
The second NASA mission, space exploration-by which was meant exploration of the moon and planets by men-also was very difficult to support during those later years. Having proved our mettle by being the first to explore the moon, it was not perceived as necessary to prove ourselves further, at least for the time being, by going on to the planets. Nor was the case for permanent earth-orbiting space stations regarded at the time as persuasive. Manned flight in the Space Shuttle and Spacelab-which in the early 1970s gained somewhat grudging support (see pp. 389-9l)-was seen as enough, and to some more than enough, for the time being.
There remained, then, the third NASA mission, space science. Even here the situation was not clear, since one could apply to science the same argument that was being applied to the applications areas. The primary mission in science had long since belonged to another agency, the National Science Foundation.* But few seemed to wish to press this argument, since the existence of a space science program in NASA served to funnel large amounts of money into science without those dollars having to compete with the funds available through the Science Foundation. The highly specialized character of the tools of space research, plus the mental anguish that would arise if space science budgets had to compete with other science budgets, together with NASA's practice of providing substantial support to science in the universities, appear to have led the nation's science community to agree that space science was properly NASA's. Both the administration and Congress went along.
The searching scrutiny of NASA's role that took place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, painful at times to those in the agency, in the end proved salutary. Out of the probing emerged an acceptance of a continuing role for the agency in which science, applications, and exploration would all play a part. Freed at last from an uneasy dependence on a passing sense of urgency over the nation's technological strength relative to that of the USSR, NASA's position in the 1970s could be intrinsically stronger. During the 1960s the fundamental contribution that space could make to a long list of important practical applications had become plain, and there could be no question but that these applications would be developed in the course of time. Not spurred on by the need to compete with the Soviet Union, the pace might be slower, but it would be more assured. And, like [376] its predecessor National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, NASA Would have a sizable role in providing important services to other agencies.
Likewise the breadth of space science, already apparent in the year following Sputnik, was abundantly clear, and its importance to the continuing development of the country's technological strength recognized. Again, the pace would certainly be measured, the smaller projects favored, the larger projects thoroughly scrutinized before being accepted, and extremely large and costly projects avoided. But within those limits it would be possible to put high-precision astronomical telescopes in orbit and to explore the farthest reaches of the solar system.
Space exploration, too, could be expected to continue, but at a very much reduced pace. While the planets, might continue to beckon, astronauts would have to await the orderly development of the means and a still-to-be-awakened national desire to explore beyond the moon. Meantime, NASA's major attention in the field of manned spaceflight would be to create the Space Shuttle and its accompanying equipment and facilities. The Space Shuttle would make flight into space easier, more routine, and more economical. Its versatility and affordability would make the Shuttle the key to the future of America in space. Because the Shuttle would replace a great many of the previously used, expendable launch vehicles, and because the Shuttle would fundamentally change the complexion of space operations, the 1970s became a decade of transition for NASA and those engaged in space research and development.

* And in life sciences, to the National Institutes of Health.